Time to listen to the unions

Since 1995, when the Employers' Association withdrew from the Scottish Joint Negotiating Committee for further education, industrial relations in the college sector have been in chaos.

During the six-month period of notice there was a scramble to achieve a Recognition and Procedures Agreement (RPA) between college managements and unions locally. Most branches achieved this, but not every RPA was completely satisfactory.

In particular, Falkirk College has since derecognised the Educational Institute of Scotland.

The 43 autonomous colleges operate with 43 different terms of salaries and conditions of service. I think everyone is aware of the level of discontent and conflict. The situation is so bad that the emergency committee of the EIS has sanctioned ballots for industrial action on close to 50 occasions in the past two to three years.

It is so bad nationwide that the 1997 report by the Acas arbitration service highlights FE as the area with the highest level of industrial unrest. Something must be done to protect the sector from itself.

But in what way? The Government has a role to play in sorting out this mess. The vast bulk of the funding for FE, some 70 per cent, comes in the form of grant-in-aid. Ministers cannot sit back and do nothing as the crisis spreads from college to college.

Despite an annual drop in funding, colleges have made a substantial contribution to the success of the sector by increasing student numbers year on year by on average 8 per cent and by implementing new initiatives. Yet the 1997 National Audit Office report forecasts that 39 of the 43 colleges will have an operational deficit at the end of the financial year 1997-98.

We had high expectations when the Labour Government was elected but so far we have been disappointed. Brian Wilson, when minister for education, said he appreciated the work being done by the "Cinderella sector", and coined another slogan, "Co-operation not competition".

I don't think that what the staffs of Clydebank, Reid Kerr and Inverness have had to endure over the past few months is compatible with this supposed new climate .

Another election pledge was "to rid the country of quangos". One of the most often asked questions within FE is: why are ministers dragging their heels over the democratisation of college boards of management?

The boards came with the package of legislation that took the colleges out of local authority control. They are unelected bodies which must, by legislation, have a majority of personnel from industry or commerce. Many of those appointed to the boards were, and some still are, Thatcherite dogmatists who joined in order to attack the conditions of lecturers, and destroy the national framework of the FE sector.

Most would agree that the system needed change, but how that was attempted and the chaos that has resulted is highly unsatisfactory. Any drive for efficiency savings and cost-cutting, no matter how necessary, can go too far and damage what was meant to be improved. In some cases the damage may prove irreparable.

Hopefully, the Government may also have come to this conclusion as a Pounds 240 million increase in funding over the next three years has been announced. The Government could restore a national framework by including the return to an SJNC (FE) as a proviso for the extra money, if the Association of Scottish Colleges, successor to the Employers' Association, continues to reject our attempts to discuss the matter.

If we are supposed to be a national sector offering National Certificate,Higher National Certificate and Higher National Diploma courses, then why do we have 43 different terms of service for the lecturers who teach them?

We are bombarded by examples of "best practice". Surely the ultimate in best practice is to treat your greatest asset, the staff, with fairness and decency. We are keen to meet both Helen Liddell, the new minister, and the Association of Scottish Colleges, despite their persistent refusals. The sooner we start talking, the better.

John Cassidy is president of the College Lecturers' Association of the Educational Institute of Scotland.

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